On July 13th the #Justice4CollegeSupervisors (#J4CS) campaign announced, with no prior warning, a boycott of undergraduate supervisions in Michaelmas term 2023.

This note aims to provide context to the current situation around undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge, and information on the undergraduate supervision system.

As further context, on 19 June, the University Council agreed that the University and Colleges should collectively seek to address the issue of excessive workloads on both students and staff as a priority. To that end, in the Michaelmas term the Council will discuss options to address student workload which Colleges fully support. In the same term the University Council will also review a draft People Strategy for the University which will aim to address staff concerns about workload and other matters.

Discussions with #J4CS

Representatives of the Colleges and University have met regularly with #J4CS members this year, and we look forward to more meetings taking place soon. Since the beginning of this year, four meetings have taken place (joint statements are available for the March, May, and June meetings). A fifth meeting was being scheduled for July when the boycott was announced. From our perspective, the meetings had been very helpful in understanding in greater detail the issues and the underlying concerns raised. It was therefore a surprise when #J4CS publicly announced a supervision boycott with no warning. We have reached out to the campaigners to resume these discussions in September, and hope to make further progress.

The Colleges and the University are extremely concerned about the impact of a supervision boycott on students, and will mitigate its effects as much as possible, should this go ahead. It is likely to affect some subjects more than others.

Conversations have continued to take place amongst Senior Tutors, and amongst Bursars, about how to address the issues and concerns raised about the supervision system. It is understood that Colleges collectively need to reach common ground about how best to respond and this will take some time, especially over the research period. Given the timing of the boycott announcement, this makes it difficult to respond formally before the beginning of the Michaelmas term 2023.

Work under way to review the supervision system

Colleges, in close collaboration with the University, are listening and are working hard to make progress on this extremely important issue. To date, progress includes:

Paid training

#J4CS raised with the Colleges that the University and the Colleges have insisted on mandatory training for new supervisors (usually provided through the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning), but that non-contracted supervisors are not paid for the time it takes to complete the training and otherwise get ready to supervise. From 2023-24, all new supervisors will be awarded an “Initial Payment” of £100 to recognise this.

Pay levels

Payment rates for supervisions are made by individual Colleges, which remunerate supervisors according to their internal policies. Commonly, “freelance supervisors” (a large cohort of people who offer relatively few supervisions annually) are paid at the intercollegiate supervision re-charge rate. This is set across the Colleges and reviewed annually for the primary purposes of allowing College Fellows and employees (contracted to undertake large numbers of supervisions) to offer their services to other Colleges as part of their College commitments.

The intercollegiate re-charge rates are agreed annually and there is a long-standing rationale for these to be uplifted by the previous year’s UCEA-UCU settlement inflationary increases. In 2022-23 it was agreed (to recognise the concerns over the cost of living) to increase these by 4.5% rather than the 3% awarded by UCEA. In addition, and following the national agreement, in 2023 these rates were uplifted for the Lent and Easter terms by a further 2%. For 2023-24, these levels will rise by a further 3%.

#J4CS have asked for an increase in these rates in the region of 125%. The Bursars’ and Senior Tutors’ Business Committees both discussed this proposal at length but rejected it. This was on grounds of both the proposal’s affordability, and the methodology underpinning it. #J4CS were encouraged to submit a revised proposal, and discussions were ongoing about undertaking a survey of supervisors. Discussions are continuing amongst Colleges about how to set rate increases in future years and the general affordability of the current supervision system arrangements. This will need to take into account the current budgetary constraints resulting from the long-term failure to increase tuition fees for Home students, the financial impact of the current high inflation, and the longer-standing effects of the pandemic.

Employment contracts

Discussions about the feasibility of permanent employment contracts, and how contractual terms might be defined, have been the subject of discussions for a number of years. There has been a lack of shared understanding about the purpose of an employment contract and a previous demand from #J4CS that such contracts should not bind supervisors to providing any supervisions they offer.

Undergraduate supervisors are not a homogenous group: some of them are office holders or permanent employees of a College, and they are formally contracted to provide undergraduate teaching, often in a full-time role. Many supervisors, however, determine for themselves the number of supervisions that they are prepared to offer, and this might be to one College or to many Colleges. For this last group, there is no clear “employer” to engage with over a contract.

Nevertheless, the Colleges were concerned about people who may see providing supervisions as a major source of income and undertook reviews in 2022-23 of people whom they identified through CamCORS (the supervision reporting system) as providing high volumes of supervisions (>50 supervisions annually) for their College. They are actively engaged with these people on an individual basis about whether a more clearly defined working arrangement is desirable for their particular circumstances.

#J4CS, in the more recent meetings, have suggested that the University acts as the employer for all supervisors and provide all of the workplace protections that permanent employees receive. #J4CS does not believe it is acceptable for supervisors who teach for more than one College to have separate (and likely different) employment contracts. It is currently not clear how discussions on this suggestion will be taken forward, since Directors of Studies in Colleges typically arrange supervisors to teach their students.

Future work

The College representatives who have met with UCU and the #J4SC have welcomed and appreciated the insights that have been gained from those meetings. These insights have also provided additional perspectives on concerns around the current Reading Week proposal, and especially the need to review student workloads and the relationship between College teaching (supervisions) and University teaching and assessment. It is expected more work in both areas will proceed in 2023-24 irrespective of whether the #J4CS boycott proceeds.

A key concern discussed at length across the intercollegiate bodies are the anecdotal reports from #J4CS members about the preparation time that some supervisors require in order to deliver their supervisions. We have received reports of some PhD students and early career researchers spending well in excess of three hours to prepare for one supervision. We believe that no supervisor should be spending that much time to prepare for the delivery of one hour of teaching, and this would clearly be unreasonable. The Colleges will need to work with the University in making this clearer to those wishing to supervise. In addition, there may be some courses where the resources provided to supervisors by Faculties and Departments need to be clearer on the expected coverage and format of a supervision, and still other courses where a major review of the role and format of supervisions might be appropriate.

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